Sacramento Bee: Dianne Feinstein, Alex Padilla urge California Democrats to spend on high-speed rail

By Katherine Swartz

California Sens. Dianne Feinstein and Alex Padilla this week urged Democratic leaders in the Legislature to get behind Gov. Gavin Newsom’s request to release $4.2 billion for the state’s beleaguered high-speed rail project, wading into a dispute over how to use the money.

In a letter sent this week, Padilla and Feinstein called on Senate Pro Tempore Toni Atkins, Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon, Senate Transportation Committee Chair Lena Gonzalez and Assembly Transportation Committee Chair Laura Friedman to take “swift action” in getting the funding through the Legislature.

Newsom requested the money in May when he gave lawmakers his budget proposal. His administration wanted to use the funds to help build a stretch of high-speed rail in the Central Valley, where work is unfolding on a line that would connect Bakersfield to Merced.

Democratic leaders sent him a budget in late June that withheld the money he requested for the project, although talks are ongoing and the High-Speed Rail is still seeking the money. Rendon and Friedman have questioned the project, and suggested the money could be better spent on urban transportation projects.

While voters supported $10 billion for high speed rail in 2013 intended to go from San Francisco to Los Angeles, years of political struggles and budgetary issues have continually stalled the project. The most recent cost projection from the Authority estimates the total cost for phase 1, Los Angeles to San Francisco, to run about $80 billion.

Besides Feinstein and Padilla’s letter, 80 members of Congress urged California earlier this month to include dedicated funding for high-speed rail in the state budget.

Feinstein and Padilla’s letter comes on the heels of President Joe Biden’s decision earlier this month to return $929 million in federal aid for high speed rail that was taken away two years ago. 

While some state legislators are strictly opposed to any high-speed rail projects, other Democrats wish to see high-speed rail continue, but without the federal restrictions currently in place over how to power the trains.

In a June 29 letter to Transportation Secretary Pete Buttegieg, Rendon and 17 other Democrat Assembly members fought against current restrictions that limit construction to older, less energy efficient technology. 

Current technology employed in high speed rail across the world uses overhead lines, but developing technologies like fuel cell and battery-electric trains could further cut down environmental impacts and costs, the lawmakers wrote.

“I saw high-speed Rail working in Taiwan and I think it’s something California should move forward on. We need to be smart moving forward, maximizing resources to serve Californians on routes they are clamoring for. Building a great Central Valley High-Speed Rail capacity depends on building demand. We can do that if we don’t waste our limited resources,” Rendon said in a written statement.

Feinstein and Padilla wrote that they’re “going to bat at the federal level” to get California’s high-speed rail up in running, which would be the first system of its kind in the nation. But in order to keep pressing for federal aid to fund the long-awaited rail system, they said that state lawmakers must maintain their own funding commitments by passing the $4.2 billion budget measure.

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